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How the discovery of an unmarked cemetery containing 95 bodies forced a Texas city to confront its history.

The fight over how to memorialize the Sugar Land 95 takes its toll on the group's biggest advocate

 Photo of Reginald Moore standing in a hallway at the Central Unit in Sugar Land in 2016
Brittney Martin
/
The Texas Newsroom

This story is part of Episode 4 of "Sugar Land." Listen to the full episode above. First time here? Start with Episode 1.

The remains of the Sugar Land 95 were reburied in the last week of November 2019, almost two years after they were first discovered. And while Reginald Moore was glad Fort Bend ISD had changed the design of its new career and technical center to allow the remains to be reburied where they were found, he wasn’t happy that the district seemed to be unilaterally making all the decisions about how the 95 were memorialized.

“I would tell him that you can't carry the whole world on your shoulders,” said his wife, Marilyn Moore.

She told us he got frustrated because people weren’t doing what he thought they should. But that wasn’t all: The work was starting to overwhelm him, leaving Reginald Moore feeling burnt out.

And he wasn’t the only person feeling that way.

2019 Soros Equality Fellows Reginald Moore, left, and Hanna Kim spoke at the University of Texas at Austin in October 2019 with Sam Collins, right.
Courtesy of Hanna Kim
Soros Equality Fellows Reginald Moore (left) and Hanna Kim spoke about convict leasing at UT Austin in October 2019 with Sam Collins (right).

“It's very frustrating, and it's draining,” said Sam Collins, who also served on the city’s Sugar Land 95 task force. By this point, he told us, he was sick of feeling gaslit.

“I have my personal business, I have my family. I have many other projects I was in. At some point, I had to tap out,” Collins said. “Because I saw, OK, you're going to do what you want to do and you're going to continue to lie and you're going to continue to go in this direction and you have no intention of doing the right things.”

Even from a distance, Collins could see the toll the fight had taken on Reginald Moore.

“It's like a constant dripping that breaks you, too, over time,” Collins said. “That additional stress affected his health. And the work of many activists — their physical health, their mental health — it suffers from having to do the work.”

Reginald Moore’s health declines

In addition to the emotional toll Reginald Moore’s work with the Sugar Land 95 had taken, he was also battling congestive heart failure. His wife said it started in 2017.

“He was having shortness of breath and on the day that he was diagnosed, he got up to go to the restroom and he had to hold on to the mantle,” Marilyn Moore told us. “So, I said, ‘Do you want to go to a doctor?’ And when he said, ‘Yes,’ I knew … he was really feeling bad.”

They headed to a pulmonary specialist to get his lungs checked out. But the doctor said the problem was his heart and he needed to go to the hospital that day. His doctor recommended he have a type of pacemaker implanted in his chest to help his heart beat more effectively, but Reginald Moore refused.

“From day one, ‘I'm not having surgery,’ Marilyn Moore recounted. “And everybody's telling him, ‘You need to have the surgery.’ But he didn't want to do that.”

Instead, he started seeing a cardiologist who put him on a strict plant-based diet. This lifestyle change put Reginald Moore in a good place health-wise throughout the Sugar Land 95 discovery and the fight over what to do with their remains.

But after three good years, he started struggling.

 Reginald Moore's wide, Marilyn Moore, speaks into a microphone from behind a podium. A sign affixed to the podium displays a historic photo of leased convicts and reads "A day of remembrance."
Brittney Martin
/
The Texas Newsroom
Reginald Moore's wife, Marilyn Moore, speaks at an event remembering the Sugar Land 95 and the convict leasing system.

“Again, the same scenario," Marilyn Moore said. "The shortness of breath, the weakness."

He was in and out of the hospital from March 2020 through early July, when he finally decided to have a surgery his doctors said would relieve some of the pressure on his heart. When Marilyn Moore still hadn’t heard from him around 3 p.m. on the day he was supposed to have his procedure, she called the hospital and spoke to a nurse.

“She asked me, ‘Are you in the hospital?’ I said, ‘No…’ And then she said, ‘How soon can you get here?’ And it still wasn't clicking. None of this was clicking to me,” Marilyn Moore said.

It wasn’t until Marilyn Moore’s doctor phoned and told her “he’s at the end” that the reality began to sink in. Her son drove her to the hospital to say goodbye.

“I had told the nurse, ‘When he gets near the end, I don't want to be there when he takes his last breath,’” Marilyn Moore said. “So, I stayed in there for a while and talked to him for a while and then I could even tell that his breath was … I said, ‘I think I'm gonna go ahead and go.’”

Within the hour, Marilyn Moore had lost her husband and the victims of the convict lease system had lost their biggest advocate.

“I've told whoever is working on Sugar Land 95 that, ‘Whatever you have, invite me. I will come,’ because I don't want Reggie's name to be left out of history,” Marilyn Moore said.

She was there in February 2022 when Fort Bend ISD erected a Sugar Land 95 exhibit at the James Reese Career and Technical Center. She attended presentations by the archeologists and community meetings with architects. She engages every chance she gets.

Protecting Reggie's legacy

Not all of Reginald Moore’s friends and fellow activists have taken that approach. For some, it feels like Moore has been reduced to a kind of mascot for the Sugar Land 95 rather than the multidimensional figure he was.

“It's sad that he passed when he did, not able to see this come to full closure,” said former Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre during a TV news interview that aired a few months after Reginald Moore’s death. “But his efforts and everything he put into this will always be remembered, will always be a part of the Sugar Land 95 story.”

“They act like he’s the hero and they loved him, and that's not what happened."
Sam Collins, Sugar Land 95 task force member

Those who knew Moore and fought alongside him get frustrated by how often his name is thrown around by the very same people who refused to listen to him when he was alive.

“They act like he’s the hero and they loved him, and that's not what happened,” Sam Collins told us. “I mean, chasing him off with the campus police, I think that was one of the things that kind of pushed him over the edge and that’s really, really unfortunate.”

Reginald Moore’s friend Jay Jenkins also resents the school district and the archeological team it put in charge of researching the cemetery. He said they failed — and continue failing — to do the things Moore asked for during his lifetime.

“I know that it would be easier if I could just let it go and move on and not deal with the stress of having 40 people call me every time the school district gets a story in the paper and ask me like, ‘Oh, is this good?’ And then I gotta be the person that's like, ‘No, it's not good. They're still not DNA testing. They're still not willing to do that,’” Jenkins said.

Fort Bend ISD’s report goes public

Two months after Moore’s death, the archeologists published a report on Fort Bend ISD’s website detailing all their research and findings regarding the cemetery.

The report revealed that bone samples collected from the graves of the Sugar Land 95 had already been sent out for DNA analysis. Anthropology professor Deborah Bolnick was working with ancient DNA at the University of Texas at Austin when the cemetery was discovered. She told us ancient DNA is essentially what it sounds like — old DNA that’s started to break down.

“After an individual dies, that structure is no longer being maintained intact by the body,” Bolnick said. “And so that double helix structure can get fragmented … instead of having one, long string, you would have a bunch of short pieces.”

The cover of Fort Bend ISD's final report on the Sugar Land 95, entitled "BACK TO BONDAGE: Forced Labor In Post Reconstruction Era Texas"
Fort Bend Independent School District
The cover of a 535-page final report on the Sugar Land 95, released by Goshawk Environmental Consulting, Inc., and Fort Bend ISD in August of 2020.

Because ancient DNA is in this weakened form, researchers like Bolnick have to work in super sterile labs. And, at the time, she says there weren’t many of those in Texas. She had just accepted a new job at the University of Connecticut and moved the project there with her in the fall of 2018.

Besides the DNA, perhaps the most important piece of new information in the report is a list of 72 names of convicts who might be buried at the cemetery. By the time the report came out, it was August 2020. The bodies had already been exhumed, studied, photographed and reburied. The James Reese Career and Technical Center had already been open for over a year. And this was the first time any names had been released. For those who had been paying attention, like Sam Collins, this came as a surprise.

“What was surprising is that the 500-page report that they put out shows they had access to a great deal more information than they had been sharing with us,” Collins said.

Collins sat on the task force with Reginald Moore and attended Fort Bend ISD’s court hearings. All along, he’d heard school district officials argue that they should be allowed to make the decisions about the Sugar Land 95 because there was no way to know who they were and no way to track down and consult their descendants. But then they published this report saying they do know who the 95 were, or at least, who they could be.

So, what was the truth? Was it possible to track down descendants using the information the school district and their researchers had at the time? Was the history presented in the report the full and complete picture of what happened here?

Next time on Sugar Land, we dig in.

This story continues in Episode 5of "Sugar Land," an investigative podcast series from The Texas Newsroom. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts.

Reginald Moore (left) discussing the Sugar Lang 95 at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research in March 2019.
Photo courtesy of Hannah Kim
/
Sugar Land
Reginald Moore (left) discussing the Sugar Lang 95 at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research in March 2019. Moore died on July 3, 2020.

Naomi Reed and Brittney Martin are the hosts of "Sugar Land,” an investigative series from The Texas Newsroom.
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